LONDON — If you stand exterior the Bank underground station, within the coronary heart of the monetary heart of Britain, and need to decide up a fast lunch, inside about 10 minutes you’ll be able to attain 25 Pret A Manger shops.
Pret, a 37-year-old British sandwich and occasional chain, grew to become ubiquitous in central London with the mantra “follow the skyscrapers,” serving up London’s harried workplace employees Posh Cheddar & Pickle baguettes and Classic Super Club sandwiches to eat at their keyboards.
This “is the basis of how we built Pret,” mentioned Pano Christou, chief government of the chain, which was acquired by the meals conglomerate JAB two years in the past. It stretches to New York and Hong Kong, however its roots nonetheless run deep in London, residence to greater than 300 of its 533 shops worldwide. Over the years Pret (nobody makes use of its full identify, French for “ready to eat”) has seeped into Britain’s cultural life with traditions like its Christmas sandwich, a part of an annual casual competitors among the many nation’s lunch counters and supermarkets.
But in March, when the coronavirus emptied workplace buildings, Pret’s prospects vanished. Seven months later, they’ve barely returned. And what was Pret’s biggest benefit — its central London stronghold — has abruptly turn into its largest weak spot.
The pandemic has turned again the clock on Pret’s accounts by a decade. In August, weekly gross sales in Britain have been about 5.5 million kilos ($7.1 million), barely greater than in August 2010, when it had about 150 fewer shops. It has laid off 2,890 individuals, a 3rd of its workers. Thousands of those that stay have gone from 35-hour contracts to 28 hours every week.
Pret has turn into a logo of the needy metropolis heart struggling with out commuters, and its troubles spawned a flurry of newspaper articles about whether or not individuals should or shouldn’t “Save Pret.” Photos of high-ranking authorities officers popping in and out of a Pret close to Parliament in July despatched a transparent message about which facet of the argument the federal government was on earlier than it instructed employees to return to their places of work, albeit briefly.
For some corporations, the one response to the pandemic has been to hunker down and check out to keep away from working out of money earlier than their prospects can return (contemplate the airline business), however others can’t anticipate a return to normalcy as a result of it might by no means come. Pret is among the many corporations pressured to rethink their enterprise as everybody reconsiders private day-to-day routines. The predicament has pressured a profitable firm to go into survival mode, to determine what the workplace lunch is with out the workplace.
And it’s now clearly keen to attempt something.
It desires to promote Pret meals in supermarkets, and has already begun promoting espresso beans on Amazon; it has signed up to all the key meals supply platforms to take its sandwiches, soups and salads to its work-from-home prospects, and opened a so-called darkish kitchen in North London to put together its meals strictly for supply, modeled on the success of Sweetgreen and Shake Shack, and hopes to open one other darkish kitchen in both New York or New Jersey quickly; and it’s devising a special menu of hot evening meals for supply, corresponding to a Chipotle Chicken Burrito Bowl.
Then there may be the espresso subscription, an effort to drive individuals again to the shops: Five drinks a day made by a barista (coffees, teas and smoothies) for £20 a month. On the face of it, it may very well be an awfully whole lot. With two lattes every week, a subscriber will break even. And the primary month is free. (Small print: You can’t order 5 drinks directly — there have to be half-hour between every drink order.)
Pret’s complete enterprise mannequin hasn’t collapsed, only one essential a part of it, mentioned Jessica Spungin, who teaches technique and entrepreneurship at London Business School. Many individuals are nonetheless working, they usually nonetheless want to eat a fast lunch. “How they can sell it to them is different because these people are no longer where they used to be,” she mentioned.
The solely approach via this, if there’s a approach via this, is for Pret to experiment with a number of “small, low risk” concepts directly, Ms. Spungin mentioned.
Mr. Christou, 42, sees this as a chance for Pret to turn into a unique sort of firm. Rather than fear about whether or not employees will return to their places of work and what the federal government’s recommendation might be, Pret wants to remodel.
“I don’t think customers should help Pret. I think it’s down to Pret to figure out what it does and how it evolves,” Mr. Christou mentioned on the firm’s headquarters final month, on his first anniversary of changing into chief government.
He joined Pret 20 years in the past as an assistant supervisor, after a stint at McDonald’s. Since then, he has risen up the ranks via operational roles overseeing shops in London, Edinburgh and Leeds. When he took over the helm, he was supposed to be overseeing an growth. His predecessor had simply purchased a rival chain to speed up the expansion of the corporate’s vegetarian and vegan spinoff, Veggie Pret.
Now, the aim is survival, and the brand new mantra, he mentioned, is “bring Pret to the people.”
Mr. Christou mentioned he had gotten the thought for the espresso subscription from Panera Bread, the U.S. chain that can be owned by JAB Holding. (The chief executives of the businesses owned by JAB chat and talk about new concepts in a WhatsApp group, he mentioned.)
The different advantage of the subscription plan is the prospect to collect extra knowledge about its prospects, who will scan a QR code every time they use it.
“Pret have been very, very late adapters to this,” Mr. Christou mentioned. Panera, he mentioned, has a database of greater than 40 million prospects throughout the United States. “Pret’s been run over the last 30 years with gut feel and intuition, and we haven’t done that badly, but I think the richness of data today gives you an opportunity to learn much more about your customers.”
Ms. Spungin mentioned that knowledge may show “invaluable” to Pret in figuring out its loyal followers, those that “care enough and miss Pret enough that they’ll sign up.” With that info, she mentioned, the corporate ought to contemplate a meals supply subscription, the place individuals can decide their lunches for the week and have them delivered every morning.
Regardless of what Pret does to diversify its enterprise, “doing nothing was definitely not going to work,” Ms. Spungin mentioned. “This has a higher chance of success.”
Mr. Christou’s optimism about Pret’s future comes with a dose of realism. “It’s still very much a turbulent time,” he mentioned. “We are not out of the woods.”
The British authorities’s furlough program, which is ready to finish on Oct. 31, remains to be serving to to pay a few of Pret’s retailer workers, together with about three million other people in Britain.
And paying lease stays a difficulty for Pret, as it’s for a lot of hospitality companies in Britain, particularly these within the heart of London. The authorities put in place a moratorium on evictions, successfully permitting companies to delay their lease funds, which has twice been prolonged, now to the tip of the yr.
“The extension of the moratorium is huge for us,” Mr. Christou mentioned.
The drawback with lease goes past the shops, of which 26 have been completely closed in Britain. Pret has additionally put the lease for its headquarters, within the Victoria space of London, close to the situation of the primary Pret, on the market. It’s a big industrial expanse of glass and concrete, with loads of spots for employees to congregate, which are actually pointless.
Pret, a sufferer of workplace downsizing and corporations permitting workers to earn a living from home indefinitely, finds it should make the identical calculations for its personal workers. Mr. Christou mentioned the pinnacle workplace would most likely keep in London however can be much less central, and accommodate about 60 % of its newly depleted workplace workers (90 individuals have been laid off in August).
Mr. Christou additionally hopes a smaller, much less grand workplace will give the corporate extra of a start-up tradition, and recall the earlier, “quirky” days when the corporate’s founders, Sinclair Beecham and Julian Metcalfe, have been continuously experimenting with new sandwich formulation, together with a crayfish and arugula sandwich that grew to become a menu staple for years.
“When you’re in survival mode, you’ve got to try things,” Mr. Christou mentioned.